MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Two workers, sheltering themselves from a cold, torrential downpour in this Mississippi River port, were chewed up like trash in the back of a malfunctioning garbage truck. Thus began, in 1968, a long public employee strike that shook the nation and cemented a historic civil rights/labor alliance.
It happened in a city that was run more like a plantation than the urban center of commerce and industry that it was. “Good-old-boy” Mayor Henry Loeb, abusive white managers, a racist school system and low wages shackled African American workers into a modern-day slavery of grueling poverty.
After their co-workers were killed, the city’s sanitation workers, many of them going up against white authority for the first time in their lives, walked the downtown streets here for months, carrying signs that said they were not garbage, signs that read, “I Am a Man.”
There were the many who risked the tiny bit they had to carry those signs and to organize a union.
There were the African American ministers who spoke to crowds of strike supporters, lifted the spirits of the strikers and helped expose to the nation the immorality of what was going on here.
There were the tough-talking white and Black union leaders and organizers, sent here by national unions that understood the importance of the fight for all workers in the country.
There were the first Black members of the Memphis City Council.
There were the dynamic African American women who were community advocates and became civil rights leaders.
There were the white members of the elite who did everything they could, through their mouthpiece, Mayor Loeb, to resist change.
And then there was King, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, accused of being a subversive, harassed by the FBI and assassinated here April 4, 1968, who saw in the struggle of the poorest workers the means to build a movement that could enduringly unite the struggles of labor with the struggles for civil rights, peace and justice.
That movement renewed itself here Jan. 17–21 at the AFL-CIO Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance as more than 1,300 labor leaders from across the country heard, most of them for the first time, from some of the heroes who fought the epic battle of 1968.
In 1968, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sent an interracial team to help the sanitation workers. Organizer Joe Paisley from Nashville, who is white, and Bill Lucy and Jesse Epps from AFSCME’s national office, who are Black, came to help lead labor’s battle here. All three were at the 40th anniversary observance this year.
“The strike brought Dr. King’s dream into reality to the extent that it showed who it is, the working people, that are the central force that can change society,” said Lucy, who is AFSCME’s secretary treasurer.
“All labor that benefits the people is dignified,” Lucy declared. “When people ask me how we can equate the work of a sanitation worker with the work of a professional lawyer, I ask them who they would rather be without on a hot and sweltering July day.”
Paisley told the delegates about the April 1, 1968, press conference where AFSCME, Memphis ministers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others came together in one of the first major national displays of unity between the civil rights and labor movements. They called jointly for an end to “plantation rule” in Memphis and for extending a boycott of downtown Memphis stores to a national boycott of goods produced in Memphis, as well as against national companies with distribution plants in Memphis, including Coca-Cola, Wonder Bread and Sealtest Dairy.
“That unity forced the city to recognize the union and the workers won,” Paisley said. Likewise, he added, “the movement here today has the potential of turning around this whole country.”
Epps spent the last hours of King’s life with him at the Lorraine Motel here. Now, nearly 40 years later, Epps urged the delegates not to underestimate the importance of the number 40.
“When Moses led the people out of Egypt, they spent 40 years in the wilderness because they forgot about a lot of what is important,” Epps declared, “but after 40 years they finally got themselves together. Well April will be 40 years and the American people are just about ready now. The 2008 elections will be the thing that makes this year the year of the great renaissance. We have to go down from this place, and go down to our unions and go down to our communities and make this happen.”
The 1,300 trade unionists filling the hall rose and gave him a prolonged ovation.